The Solar Scam of Kerala

The judicial commission constituted to inquire into the “solar scam” submits its report, but there is a lack of clarity on the measures the government intends to take.

Published : Nov 22, 2017 12:30 IST

Justice G. Sivarajan  submitting the inquiry commission’s report to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in Thiruvananthapuram on September 26.

Justice G. Sivarajan submitting the inquiry commission’s report to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in Thiruvananthapuram on September 26.

THE much-awaited report of the Solar Inquiry Commission was finally tabled in the Kerala Assembly on November 9 and its contents have now been made public. But the report, prepared after a four-year-long inquiry, has only helped darken the veil over the allegations of corruption and sexual exploitation raised by a woman of dubious credibility against former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, some of his Cabinet members and party colleagues and others during the previous Congress-led government in the State.

The report, no doubt, has come in handy for the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) to keep Oommen Chandy, the State Congress party and the opposition coalition in check for a fairly extended period, especially after the LDF government itself came under a cloud over allegations that businessman-turned-Transport Minister Thomas Chandy had encroached on waterbodies and public land and converted paddy fields for a private hotel project.

On November 16, Thomas Chandy became the second Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Minister to resign reluctantly from the 14-month-old LDF ministry. Another NCP representative was forced to quit in May after a sting operation revealed him seeking sexual favours from a woman. Earlier, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) Minister too was forced to resign because of charges of nepotism.

Soon after Justice (retd) G. Sivarajan’s Solar Inquiry Commission Report was presented to the government and even before its contents were made public, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced the Cabinet’s decision to register cases immediately against Oommen Chandy and 13 others, including his former Cabinet and party colleagues, on charges of corruption and sexual exploitation and/or rape, based on the report. Following an uproar over the decision being announced on the day a crucial Assembly byelection was scheduled to be held at Vengara in Malappuram district, the decision was temporarily kept in abeyance.

The rambling, repetitive and, on many crucial issues, vaguely worded report says that “there is substance in the allegation” that Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, some of his office, personal and security staff, former party MLAs Benny Behanan and Thampanoor Ravi, and his aide in New Delhi, Thomas Kuruvila, “are all participants to the solar scam deals of the prime accused Saritha S. Nair and Biju Radhakrishnan in one way or the other”. “All of them had assisted Saritha and her company in enabling them to cheat their customers,” the report says.

The commission also found “substance in the allegation” that Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, his Home and Vigilance Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, “and through them” several senior police officers “had made efforts to sabotage the investigation assured to the Sabha [State Assembly] in categoric terms, by dubious methods” and that all of them were responsible for it.

The report says the police Special Investigation Team (or SIT, that went into the allegations initially) “has strained much by dubious methods” to absolve the Chief Minister of criminal liability. The SIT also did not probe the involvement of other Ministers, government officers, a Union Minister of State, MLAs and police officers in the investigation with reference to call data records and other evidence on record.

The report says that Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan “made all efforts on his part to ensure that Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is extricated from criminal liability through police officers under him” and that, as in the case of Oommen Chandy, Electricity Minister Aryadan Mohammed had also assisted Team Solar company “in whatever manner possible”.

The commission also found that the Ministers who inaugurated the projects of Saritha Nair’s Team Solar company, the MLAs who recommended the company for installing solar street lights in their constituencies and helped in closing criminal cases against Saritha, and (Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary) Thampanoor Ravi and MLA Benny Behanan had all “worked for saving the Chief Minister Oommen Chandy”.

Controversial inclusion

More controversially, the commission chose to include the full text of a “letter” (note) written by Saritha Nair on July 19, 2013, when she was in judicial custody. The credibility of the letter has been repeatedly questioned because (1) several versions of the “letter” are in circulation, all with the same date and (2) the original letter as per official records was only 21 pages long while the one included in the report has 25 pages.

The commission chose to add the full text of a version of the contentious letter twice (in the first and second volumes) in the report, a version that contained serious allegations of corruption, and sleazy, vivid and utterly shaming details of sexual favours allegedly sought by a number of Congress leaders, including the former Chief Minister, former State and Union Ministers, MPs, MLAs and two police officers.

At lengthy press conferences spread over two days following the tabling of the report, Oommen Chandy drew attention to the unfair way in which the commission had come to its “findings”, how it had unilaterally altered the terms of reference, and how it had come to bizarre conclusions on some of the findings or ignored some others completely. He also pointed out how a large section of the media had portrayed it all subsequently, claiming that the commission had identified the “culprits” and that cases were “going to be registered against them for their crimes”.

“I will not blame the media for it. Their inference is based on an official press note issued by the Chief Minister’s office. It lists the commission’s ‘recommendations’ and then goes on to say that cases will be registered based on that list of ‘crimes’. But then what are the ‘crimes’ listed? It is entirely the allegations in a letter (written by Saritha Nair) that has been included in the report. The commission has merely said that those ‘complaints’ or ‘allegations’ should be taken into consideration. The Chief Minister subsequently said they will be inquired into. But the press note goes beyond all that and newspapers have published it with so much importance that the ‘culprits in the case’ have been found,” Oommen Chandy said.

“I have already said let any inquiry be conducted. We are not afraid of that. But nobody is giving a thought to the fact that it is all based on a dubious letter, whose credibility and genuineness even the commission has not examined. It is well documented as per the jail superintendent’s receipt that the letter originally written by her had 21 pages; but the letter in the commission’s report has 25 pages. An independent witness, the then Jail DGP Alexander Jacob, had told the commission that my name was not in her letter. Though the commission had all the details of the differences between the two letters, without examining any of them the commission has included this version in the report. The report does not describe the contents of the letter as its findings. But the Chief Minister and his office go to work on them, giving it more importance than the commission’s findings. Thus, though the commission does not say anything about the credibility of the letter and comes to some wishy-washy conclusions based on preconceived notions, it has thrown the door open for a campaign that denigrates everybody and puts them all in shame at one go,” Oommen Chandy told a crowded press conference in Thiruvananthapuram.

To questions raised in the terms of reference of the commission, whether the government had sustained any financial loss in connection with transactions involved in the said allegations, or whether it had indeed issued any work orders or any other orders illegally to the company or persons involved in the said allegations, and if so what the quantum of financial loss was and who was responsible for it, the report says: “The admitted position is that the government did not part with any money to Team Solar company or Solar Scam accused Saritha S. Nair and Biju Radhakrishnan or to any of their associates.”

“However, though not for the solar scam accused, lakhs of rupees had to be spent from the coffers of the government for maintenance of law and order in the Secretariat and its premises to meet the protest of lakhs of people as an offshoot of the solar scam and the largescale protest of the LDF workers and during the Chief Minister’s public contact programme during that period. Needless to say amounts had to be spent in connection with the solar scam inquiry. If all the aforesaid circumstances can be treated as financial loss to the revenue, in that sense it can be said that the government has sustained substantial financial loss in connection with the transactions involved in the allegations. Needless to say the persons who are found responsible under the first limb (of the terms of reference) are the persons responsible.”

The commission has also failed to address one of the terms of reference entirely, on “whether any lapse had occurred in dealing with the complaints being raised since 2005 [when an LDF government led by V.S. Achuthanandan was in power] with regard to the persons involved in the solar scam and allied financial transactions and, if so, who were responsible for it”.

Oommen Chandy said that the solar scam cases came to light during the earlier LDF government in the State and that even though 14 cases had been registered, there had been no progress in any of them during the LDF’s tenure. “It was during my chief ministership that the cases began to be dealt with in a serious manner. The murder case against Biju Radhakrishnan was raised during LDF rule. But it was inquired into and Biju was convicted during UDF [United Democratic Front] rule. Thus, when strict action was taken, when we moved forward legally, these allegations began to be raised against us.”

“About the sexual allegations against me, I have only one thing to say,” he said. “I have a history of 50 years of public life in Kerala. I am not a person living inside a glass cage. I have been working closely with the people of Kerala. All those who know me are aware of my approach in such issues. …But I am sure that if even one per cent of her allegations are true, I will not be in public life any longer. Because I believe if that is the case I am no longer eligible to be in public life.”

“Saritha never raised even the corruption charges on any occasion when she was cross-examined by the commission for days, and even though she got several opportunities, she did not come forward with any of the allegations she mentions in the letter,” Oommen Chandy told media persons.

He said the commission had given too much importance to the statement of a woman “who has changed her statements frequently” and who, he said, had elsewhere gone “on record before the commission stating that my name is not in her letter”. He drew attention to a significant observation in the report where the commission seeks to find fault with his statement that he was initially not able to recall whether he had met Saritha once or twice, when the allegations first surfaced. The report says: “This clearly is a stand totally different from all those witnesses who deposed before the commission to the effect that, from her dressing, physical appearance and her capacity and versatility in her talk Saritha, once seen, ordinarily will not be forgotten…. It is difficult to conceive that a seasoned politician with more than 40 years dealing with men, Sri Oommen Chandy can be a different man when he says that she was one among the thousands who meets him every day and that he is not able to recollect her identity even now.”

The solar scandal exploded in June 2013 during the early days of the UDF government, soon after Chief Minister Oommen Chandy launched an innovative annual mass contact programme and was gaining popularity for the openness and accessibility of his office and the transparency in its functioning.

The Chief Minister’s office had just won the prestigious United Nations Public Service Award for the mass contact programme, getting a first place in the category “Preventing and Combating Corruption in the Public Service” in the Asia-Pacific region, when the scandal surfaced. Reports followed of some of the Chief Minister’s handpicked personal staff members or private aides coming under the spell of a man-woman duo who, allegedly, defrauded several people of crores of rupees under the pretext of setting up solar energy panels and wind farms for them.

Reports of the arrest of Saritha K. Nair and Biju Radhakrishnan, her business associate and former “live-in partner”, followed, with the latter being arrested in Coimbatore on the charge of murdering his wife, Reshmi, in 2006. Saritha too, it came to light, had several cases against her for, among other things, financial fraud and for resorting to forgery to dupe the Team Solar company’s clients.

As Frontline had reported earlier (see “Cross connection”, June 26, 2013; “Losing sheen”, August 7, 2013; and “Singed by a scam”, February 3, 2016), the Biju-Saritha team, directors of the Kochi-based Team Solar Renewable Energy Solutions Pvt. Ltd, used to demand advance money from gullible clients and investors, in most cases in the hope of repaying them with funds obtained from new clients, in a kind of Ponzi scheme, similar to the fraudulent money-chain schemes that became popular in Kerala in the early 1990s.

It was part of the regular publicity gimmicks of the company to present awards to prominent people or use endorsements from them to gain media coverage and credibility. Ministers, MPs and MLAs were regularly invited to the company’s programmes and functions. Saritha Nair and Biju Radhakrishnan would thus flaunt their real or contrived proximity to Ministers, their office staff, MLAs, MPs, officials and other prominent people as an endorsement of the genuineness of the company and its schemes.

It became clear that Saritha Nair, who was in charge of marketing and sales of the company, had used her acquaintance with Ministers, MLAs and/or their personal staff and officials to entrap customers into investing sums ranging from Rs.70,000 to Rs.50 lakh in the projects, not one of which saw the light of day even though the company had been in existence for over a decade.

Over 32 cases were registered against the duo on the basis of complaints by victims. The police estimated the amount swindled by them to be around Rs.6 crore, and many people who had parked their ill-gotten wealth with the company have not yet come forward with complaints. But the commission said in its report that the solar scam cases were outside its purview altogether.

At the time of writing this report, there was a lack of clarity on the measures the LDF government was going to take on the basis of the commission’s report. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said the UDF was confident of challenging the government’s actions through legal means on the basis that the commission had gone beyond its brief and had flouted established norms. He also alleged that Justice Sivarajan had not signed, as required, on one entire volume of the four-volume report. Subsequently, a government official fixed an appointment with Justice Sivarajan and obtained his signature on all the pages in that volume.

Serious allegations

Oommen Chandy, too, repeated the allegation at his press conference and said: “Can we be faulted for wondering if there was foul play?” He said the government’s actions after it received the report were “not at all transparent and it has shown an ugly haste in announcing that cases will be registered based on the allegations in the letter. Is the government creating an atmosphere of revenge politics?” he asked.

Referring to an earlier statement made by Saritha Nair, he said: “This controversial woman once said that the CPI(M) had offered her Rs.10 crore to say things against me in order to bring down the UDF government. Today, I am asking Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his party, who give so much importance to her every word in the letter, what do they have to say about her allegation [that they offered her Rs.10 crore]? Is it right or wrong? I believe that it is wrong because, from my experience, she is a woman who will say anything anywhere. But what is the CPI(M)’s stand on this? If it is true, then they are responsible for trying to bring down an elected government. If it is not true, then should the party follow a person who habitually makes such false statements? When her allegation about them was published by an important national magazine in India, I was being grilled on the solar case issue, and the opposition was leading a very strong agitation against me. But I refused to use it against them because I did not believe that the CPI(M) would do such a thing. That, I believe, is what we mean by political decency. You should deal politically with your political rivals. I refused to use it to my advantage. I only ask the CPI(M) to do the same here. If they believe it is wrong, is it right on their part as a political party to go along with such a woman? They have been hounding me with this case for the past four years.

“Everybody asks me now whether it was not a commission that I myself had appointed. That is true. Moreover, till we left office, we had provided all the help required by the commission. Because I wanted the report to come out quickly. It asked for and got several extensions. Many things have changed in the one and a half years since the LDF government came to power. The letter [in the commisison’s report] was made after this government came to power. It was marked for inclusion by the commission after the new government assumed office.”

Significantly, Oommen Chandy ended his long defence before the media by making the startling revelation that perhaps a new phase in the solar scam mystery was just beginning. He said: “Several people have tried to blackmail me. A lot many. I have not succumbed to any of them. I said I would rather bear whatever the consequences are. But I succumbed to the blackmailing of just one person. I am sorry about that. I will not say anything more on it now. I will disclose it at the right time.”

UPDATE: In a tragic turn of events, K Harikrishnan, the police official who was part of the team investigating the notorious solar scam in Kerala, was discovered deceased near a railway track close to Kayamkulam early on Saturday, April 29, 2023. The incident, which occurred during the rule of the previous Congress-led government in Kerala, had sparked a controversy involving several prominent leaders, including the then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. As per initial reports, a suicide note has been retrieved from Harikrishnan’s car, which was parked near the body. Authorities have registered a case of unnatural death and commenced an investigation into the matter A Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP), Harikrishnan was instrumental in arresting the prime accused in the scam, Saritha Nair, soon after its emergence in June 2013. Although another police official was handling the case, Harikrishnan’s pivotal role in the investigation cannot be overstated.
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